Part four — Exercise 4.1

Part four — Exercise 4.1

The blog post ‘Looking at Adverts: 17’ (Woolley, 2017) examines the advertising that surrounds the beauty industry, in particular that aspect that relates to the attempt to slow or even arrest aging, at least its outward manifestations. All advertising can be ‘decoded’ in one way or another — it is interesting that Roland Barthes used an advertisement to illustrate his concept of the ‘rhetoric’ of an image (Barthes, 1977), explaining:

We will start by making it considerably easier for ourselves: we will only study the advertising image. Why? Because in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible. If the image contains signs, we can be sure that in advertising these signs are full, formed with a view to optimum reading: the advertising image is frank, or at least emphatic (Barthes, 1977: 32).

Without undertaking a semiotic analysis Woolley suggests that advertisements for anti-ageing cosmetic products offer an example of how science, nature and myth are often combined. The word ‘myth’ is used in its modern context:

The word [myth] once referred to stories that told hallowed truths, which as believers we took on trust. Now in common usage, it refers to a tissue of more of less amusing lies, like the urban legends about albino alligators splashing in the Manhattan sewers or the pirate’s treasure buried somewhere … The lost art was recovered by the writers of advertising copy, who had a sly awareness of its fictionality. Ancient myths were theological; although their contemporary equivalent are commercial, the products they tout still pretend to purvey spiritual truths (Conrad, 2016: 14).

The author of the above passage could have had in mind, as he wrote, the advertisements cited by Woolley (see fig. 1. and fig. 2.). Wooley observes that the products contain, along with the mythic ‘drops from the fountain of youth’, stem cells extracted from marine plants. This combination of myth and science makes the science more credible and illustrates Judith Williamson’s point that ‘all consumer products offer magic, and all advertisements are spells’ (Williamson cited by Woolley, 2017).

A photographer who attempted to break such spells and expose the ‘commercialism and venality of contemporary life’ (Grundberg, 2006) was Robert Heinecken (b. 1931). For example in his ‘most influential body of work’ (Grundberg, 2006) ‘Are You Rea’ (1966-67) he ‘superimposed upon ads for stockings and woman’s razors a picture of a Vietnamese soldier holding up two severed heads, then inserted the new images into fashion magazines on the newsstands’ (Goldberg, 2010: 170). The images were intended to shock the viewer, to shock them awake: ‘something terrible is going on out there while you’re wondering whether your legs are sufficiently silky’ (Goldberg, 2010: 170).

John Berger makes a similar, basically political, point when he gives as illustration a page from a magazine containing the unintended juxtaposition of a photographic advertisement for bubble bath with that of a news photograph of an desperately impoverished family (Berger, 1972: 152). Berger sees this and similar juxtapositions, because they occur unplanned, as symptomatic of an underlying societal malise.

Unlike the advertisements for stockings, woman’s razors or bubble bath (above) the mixture of science, nature and myth as exemplified in the anti-aging advertisements is not employed in selling a product, or even a life-style, but something broader and deeper. Would a strategy of superimposing news photographs on these advertisements shock as did those by Robert Heinecken (above) in the 1960s? Heinecken wanted ‘reality’ to intrude on the viewer, and Berger’s point (above) was that the bourgeois consumer of bubble bath was indifferent to (and was being made indifferent to) the material reality of those less fortunate around them. Behind both works is the assumption that there is a baseline consensus reality that can be brought, sometimes with difficulty due to distraction or wilful ignorance, to a viewer’s attention.

In this regard a 1991 work by John Baldessari — ‘Beach Scene/Nuns/Nurse (with Choices)’ — (see fig. 3.) may be a response that echos Heinecken’s work (above) from the ‘60s:

Drawing from a wide lexicon of appropriated and altered stills from B-movies in concert with painted dots over the faces of models or actors to shield identity and make universal, the theatrically scaled 92 by 144-3/4-inch polyglot work recalls the symmetrical structure of an altar.  Indeed, Baldessari almost demands that the viewer deal with the ethical and moral choices of contemporary existence by contrasting age-old themes in his images.  The altruism of a Red Cross nurse in a hospital (top image) compliments the compassion of two nuns with hands tented in devotion (actually the identical photograph used twice but flipped).  The nuns however, bookend the largest image in the grouping, which is a bikini-clad woman embracing the more frivolous pleasures of being held across the muscled chests of three macho body-builder types.  Hanging at an angled tilt, a fifth image, of a woman’s bejeweled and manicured hand, gestures to a lineup of six precious gemstones.  … contrast between selflessness and narcissism provided by the artist’s strategy of juxtaposing images which collide … (Appel, 2006).

The demands made on the viewer by both Heinecken and Baldessari are the same, each use contrast and juxtaposition along with images of the ‘more frivolous pleasures’ (above) in order to call the viewer to ‘deal with the ethical and moral choices of contemporary existence’ (above). Baldessari’s image (see fig. 3.) stands in opposition to much consumer advertising and attempts like Heinecken’s work (above) to subvert it.


Appel, B., 2006. Contemporary Photography: Truth & The Burden Of Reality. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 17 10 2017].

Barthes, R., 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

Berger, J., 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Conrad, P., 2016. Mythomania. Tales of our times, from Apple to ISIS. London: Thames & Hudson.

Goldberg, V., 2010. Light Matters. Writings on photography. New York: Aperture.

Grundberg, A., 2006. Robert Heinecken, Artist Who Juxtaposed Photographs, Is dead. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 10 2017].

Woolley, D., 2017. Looking at adverts: 17. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 10 2017].


Figure 1.

Figure 2.

Figure 3. Baldessari, John  (1991) Beach Scene/Nuns/Nurse (with Choices). [Online]
Available at

(Accessed 22 10 2017)


Exercise 3.4 The gaze

Exercise 3.4 The gaze

Exercise brief: This exercise gives you the opportunity to explore the image as a window with which to trigger memory. The objective here is to produce a series of five portraits that use some of the types of gaze defined above. The specifics of how you achieve this are down to you; you choose which types of gaze you wish to address and who your subject might be in relation to this decision. What you’re trying to achieve through these portraits is a sense of implied narrative, which you can explain through a short supporting statement. Don’t try and be too literal here; the viewer must be able to interact with the portraits and begin to make their own connection to the work, aided by the type of gaze you’ve employed. Write down any thoughts or reflections you might have regarding this exercise and include this in your learning log or blog.

The Spectator’s gaze (click to enlarge)

The narrative here revolves around the people gathered to look and listen to the woman holding the microphone. The event takes place on the street so the people may be an audience to a political speaker, or simply a street entertainer. Some of the audience (the three women) appear mildly amused by what they are listening to, the two men less so. One of the men appears to have turned his head quickly to look at the speaker (his body still facing in another direction), as if to confirm what he had just heard. Clearly the speaker has the audience’s attention.

The Bystander’s gaze (click to enlarge)

The implied narrative in this photograph relates firstly and most obviously to the girl standing on the left but most strongly to the man wearing a cap who stands almost centre with a typical ‘bystander’ stance and gaze – uninvolved but not disinterested. There is a dynamic between the three people whose faces can be seen and the fourth whose rear head is to the camera. The laughing expression of one suggests that something has been said or has happened that has caught everyone’s attention – whether humorous or embarrassing the girl on the left appears undecided.

The ‘look of the camera’ (click to enlarge)

Here the viewer is made aware of the camera’s presence as a device making the image. The viewer is not looking at an image of a child feeding pigeons in the park, nor of a parent taking a family snap (‘memory’) on a camera phone; the image is of what the ‘camera saw’ of this scene. The viewer is made conscious of the camera, its presence ‘behind the scene’ and perhaps also of the artificiality of all photographs, an artificiality that would be hidden if the photograph was simply one of a child feeding pigeons in the park.

The Internal gaze (click to enlarge)

Here two people interact, one in a stance that implies he is giving consideration to what the other is saying or offering (this in relation to the booklet held by the other). The implied narrative is that the person on the left is offering something for sale, and close examination shows that what is being offered is a food menu – the person on the right is touting for business for a restaurant.

The Averted gaze (click to enlarge)

The most difficult gaze to capture – what most people who do not want to look at the camera actually want is for the camera not to look at them, and they will continue to look disapprovingly in its direction hoping in this way to drive it away. The gaze them becomes a direct, confrontational one. In this photograph the subject is aware of the camera but chooses not to look at it, to avert her gaze.

The five images produced for this Exercise all depict a category of gaze (Boothroyd and Roberts, 2015: 67). The Exercise brief states: ‘the viewer must be able to interact with the portraits and begin to make their own connection to the work, aided by the type of gaze you’ve employed’. This interaction between image and viewer is mediated by memory. The writer and critic Siri Hustvedt considered this relationship when she viewed an exhibition composed of images (paintings) of women:

I do not see myself as I look at a painting. I see the imaginary person in the canvas. I haven’t disappeared from myself. I am aware of my feelings — my awe, irritation, distress, and admiration – but for the time being my perception is filled up by the painted person. She is of me while I look and, later, she is of me when I remember her. In memory, she may not be exactly as she is when I stand directly in front of the painting but rather some version of her that I carry in my mind. While I am perceiving her, I establish a relation to this imaginary woman, …. I animate them [the women in the exhibition’s paintings], as you do. Without a viewer, a reader, a listener, art is dead. Something happens between me and it, … And that is why I don’t treat artworks as I would a chair, but I don’t treat them as a real person either (Hustvedt, 2016: 5).

Although Hustvedt above is commenting on looking at paintings it is possible to see in what she writes the universals of visual art and parallels with photographs in particular. Thus an image initially fills up the viewer’s perception and is remembered, but the remembered version differs from that which was viewed. It is this remembered version of the image’s subject that the viewer ‘establishes a relationship with’ (above). Further, this memory and hence relationship is dependent on the viewer having animated the people in the photograph while looking at it. In the case of the five Exercise photographs above this animation relates to the viewer having successfully built a narrative around the types of gazes shown; this in turn depends on how well I have managed to photograph the differing gazes, that is, well enough to support the viewer in generating a narrative.

Of the five images produced for this Exercise it is the ‘look of the camera’ photograph that is problematic for this scheme because in a sense it ‘short circuits’ it, that is to say this photograph, in depicting the act of making a photographic memory, brings to the viewer’s mind the fact that they are not looking at real people or objects but only a projection; this inevitably makes it more difficult for them to animate the people depicted, form a memory of the scene and generate a narrative.

The  five Exercise images arranged in a single Gallery (click to enlarge)



Boothroyd, Sharon and Roberts, Keith (2015) Photography 1 Identity and Place. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts

Hustvedt, Siri (2016) A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women. Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind. London: Hodder & Stoughton

Part 3, Project 2, Windows: memory and the gaze (ii)

Part 3, Project 2, Windows: memory and the gaze (ii)

A photograph has the ability to ‘cut across the continuum of time’, thus ‘effectively interrupting the flow of time’ (John Berger cited in Boothroyd and Roberts, 2015: 68). This ability is made explicit in those works that photograph the same subject or subjects over time, examples include for example Nicholas Nixon’s (b. 1947) ‘The Brown Sisters’ (Nixon 2014), Steve Pyke’s ‘Jack and Duncan’ series (Steve Pyke, s.d), and Lucy Hilmer’s ‘Birthday Suits’ series (Lucy Hilmer, s.d). An example of artists working in other another medium who used the ‘window’ as a mechanism through which to communicate memory via their work is Louise and Jane Wilson’s sculpture based on ‘a photograph their father took of their mother and her friend’ (see fig. 1.). The way the work came about was:

A few years ago, we found a really interesting image he’d taken and turned it into a sculpture [see fig. 1.]. It’s a picture of my mother and a friend of hers bending down to pick up shells on the beach, looking very 60s. Their posture mirrors each other, and there’s a man in the middle holding a camera, and these beautiful long shadows from a low, late afternoon sun. Jane [Wilson] and I put his photo behind a set of old-fashioned weighing scales. The scales reflect the balance, the way the women seem on the same plain (Wilson, 2013).

The concept of ‘postmemory’ is another manner in which photography and time may interact. The term was proposed by Marianne Hirsch (Hirsch, 2012):  ‘Postmemory is a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation’ (Hirsch, 2012: 22).

Susan Sontag cautioned that ‘only that which narrates can make us understand’ (cited in Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 12) and Abigail Solomon-Godeau asks if photography is limited: ‘to the superficiality of surface appearance, how then does one gauge the difference between the photographic image made with an insider’s knowledge or investment from one made from a position of total exteriority?’ (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 12). Postmemory allows the same question to be asked but from the point of view of the viewer and not the maker of the photograph as Solomon-Godeau does. In this scheme a photograph may be read in different ways depending on for example the narrative that any particular reader may be able to apply to the photograph, or the investment they are willing to make in their reading of it. An example is the family album which is merely a collection of photographs to any viewer who has no connection to the family (an ’outsider’ viewer) but contains a narrative to the viewer who is a family member (an ‘insider’ viewer). Such a viewer is connected to the photographs in the album, even to those photographs of people who they never met and who are now dead, by postmemory, form of memory that is ‘mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation’ (Hirsch above).

Marianne Hirsch developed the idea of postmemory: ‘in relation to children of Holocaust survivors’ (Hirsch, 2012: 22) because:

Postmemory characterises the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated (Hirsch, 2012: 22).


Boothroyd, Sharon and Roberts, Keith (2015) Photography 1 Identity and Place. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts

Hilmer, Lucy (s.d.) Birthday Suits | 1974-2015. At: (Accessed on: 19.09.17)

Hirsch, M. (2012) Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. London: Harvard University Press

Nixon, Nicholas (2014) Nicholas Nixon: The Brown Sisters: Forty Years. New York: The Museum of Modern Art

Pyke, Steve (s.d) Steve Pyke. At: (Accessed on: 19.09.17)

Wilson, Louise (2013) ‘The power of photography: time, mortality and memory’ In: The Guardian [online] At: (Accessed on 20.09.17)


Figure 1. Wilson, Louise and Jane (s.d) Sculpture by Jane and Louise Wilson, based a photograph their father took of their mother and her friend. At: (Accessed on 20.09.17)

Part 3, Project 2, Windows: memory and the gaze (i)

Part 3, Project 2, Windows: memory and the gaze (i)

A consideration of William Klein’s (b. 1928) photograph ‘Big Face, Big Buttons’ (Klein, 1955; see fig. 1.) suggests that:

There are two different orders of spectacle here (the public event and the private encounter) and two different levels of spectatorship (the intimate exchange between the photographer and the woman, and the awkward gaping of the crown). The photograph … is about the act of looking. It sets up an opposition between an inner and outer gaze. The active eye contact between the woman and the photographer contrasts with the passive fascination of the crowd. The picture is a collage of viewpoints (Angier, 2015: 161).

Angier (2015: 162) draws important differences between this photograph by Klein above and one that appears superficially similar, namely ‘Movie Premier – Hollywood’ (Frank, 1955; see fig. 2.):

Psychologically Frank is further away from his foreground subject. He is not engaged with her. She does not acknowledge her presence. Her eyes are blank shadows. She seems to be completely wrapped up in herself. Although apparently a celebrity she is a cipher (Angier, 2015: 162).

Both of the above images contain a different category of ‘the gaze’ (Boothroyd and Roberts, 2015: 67) i.e.

the spectator’s gaze – the look of the viewer at a person in the image (Frank)

the bystander’s gaze – the viewer being observed in the act of viewing (Klein)

An example of another such category — the direct address: the gaze of a person depicted in the image looking out directly, as if at the viewer (through the camera lens) – is Walker Evans’ (b. 1903) ‘Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama’ (see fig. 3.). This portrait is:

a tightly framed bull’s-eye confrontation, containing only the barest amount of environmental detail that might help the viewer draw conclusions about the quality of the subject’s life. It is a cold-blooded image. The subject is presented as a specimen for close inspection, pinned to a wall … (Angier, 2015: 142).

The direct gaze of the subject is essential to the ‘bull’s-eye confrontation’. Another photographer who utilised the direct gaze to similar affect is Richard Avedon (b. 1923) in his series ‘In the American West’ (Avedon, 1985) for example the isolated subjects from the latter series seen in Figure 4 and 5.

In the context of the direct gaze Thomas Struth’s (b. 1954) series of family portraits (Struth, 2001 – 2005) are:

formal, characterised by a controlled frontality in the sitters’ bodies and faces. The photographs’ intensity reflects the ritualised nature of their production: people are lifted out of their day-to-day existence for the formal ceremonial portrait’ (Durden, 2014: 80).

In the photographs no one in the family groups is smiling and all looks directly into the lens making the faces appear inexpressive – see for example fig. 6. and fig. 7. However, the images are presented as large format prints such that ‘the scale and detail of the large format works allows us to see each sitter’s face, a scrutiny uniquely facilitated by the medium’ (Durden, 2014: 80), and arguably it is Struth’s utilisation in the composition of the direct gaze that gives to these portraits much of their depth and fascination.

Thomas Struth again employs a single category of gaze throughout a series in his ‘Audiences’ (Struth, 2004) – here it is the ‘bystander’s gaze’ (i.e. the viewer being observed in the act of viewing). The images are of tourists gathered to view Michelangelo’s ‘David’ at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence:

Analysing the spatial dynamics of the room in which David stands confirmed that by positioning the camera beneath the sculpture, Struth could indeed show the audience’s gaze from the perspective of the work of art (Struth, s.d).

A good example of the ‘editorial gaze’, that is ‘the whole “institutional” process by which a proportion of the photographer’s gaze is chosen and emphasised’ (Boothroyd, and Roberts, 2015: 67) is the photographs taken for the U.S. Farm Security Administration in 1935 under the direction of Roy Emerson Stryker. As Susan Sontag (Sontag, 1977) explained, this project was:

concerned exclusively with “low-income groups.” The FSA [Farm Security Administration] project, conceived as “a pictorial documentation of our rural areas and rural problems” (Stryker’s words), was unabashedly propagandistic, with Stryker coaching his team about the attitude they were to take toward their problem subject. The purpose of the project was to demonstrate the value of the people photographed. Thereby, it implicitly defined its point of view: that of middle-class people who needed to be convinced that the poor were really poor, and that the poor were dignified (Sontag, 1977: 61).


Angier, Roswell (2015) Train Your Gaze. A practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography. London: Bloomsbury

Avedon, Richard (1985) In the American West, 1979–1984. New York: Abrams

Boothroyd, Sharon and Roberts, Keith (2015) Photography 1 Identity and Place. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts

Durden, Mark (2014) Photography Today. New York: Phaidon

Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin Books

Struth, Thomas (2001 – 2005) Family Portraits 2. At: (Accessed on: 15.09.17)

Struth, Thomas (2004) Audiences. At: (Accessed on: 15.09.17)

Struth, Thomas (s.d) Audiences. At: (Accessed on: 15.09.17)


Figure 1. Klein, William (1955) Big Face, Big Buttons. At: (Accessed on: 13.09.17)

Figure 2. Frank, Robert (1955) Movie Premier – Hollywood. At: (Accessed on: 13.09.17)

Figure 3. Evans, Walker (1936) Allie Mae Burroughs, Wife of Cotton Sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama. At: (Accessed on: 14.09.17)

Figure 4. Avedon, Richard (1979) Boyd Fortin, Thirteen Year Old Rattlesnake Skinner, Sweetwater, Texas, Texas. At: (Accessed on 14.09.17)

Figure 5. Avedon, Richard (1980) Roberto Lopez, Oil Field Worker, Lyons, Texas. At: (Accessed on 14.09.17)

Figure 6. Struth, Thomas (2001) Charles and Laurence. [Chromogenic print 123 x 146.8 cm] At: (Accessed on 15.09.17)

Figure 7. Struth, Thomas (2002). The Richter family 1. [Chromogenic print 135 x 193.4 cm] At: (Accessed on 15.09.17)

Project 1 Exercise 3.3

Project 1 Exercise 3.3

Write a reflection in your learning log about some of the ways in which marginalised or under-represented people or groups could be badly or unhelpfully portrayed. How might being an insider help combat this?

Citing the critique by Susan Sontag of the ‘touristic and anomic’ sensibility informing the work of Diane Arbus, the critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26) notes Sontag’s conclusion that ‘her [Arbus] view is always from the outside’ (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26):

This binarism … characterises — in a manner that appears virtually self-evident – two possible positions for the photographer. The insider position – in this particular context, the “good” or “virtuous” position – is understood to imply a position of engagement, participation, and privileged knowledge. Whereas the second, the outsider’s position, is taken to produce an alienated and voyeuristic relationship that heightens the distance between subject and object. Along the lines of this binerism hinges much of the debate concerned with either the ethics or the politics of various forms of photographic practice (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26).

Solomon-Godeau suggests that the work of Ed Ruscha such as ‘Every Building on the Sunset Strip’ (Ruscha, 1966) or Dan Graham’s ‘Homes of America (1965 -70)’ could be considered the ‘degree zero’ of the photographic outsider, and places in contrast ‘at the other pole of photographic representation’ the “confessional” mode represented by Larry Clarke and Nan Goldin (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26). However, the inside/outside division of photography is not a simple one as Solomon-Godeau illustrates by articulating five questions that relate to it:

… how does one gauge the difference between the photographic image made with an insider’s knowledge or investment from one made from a position of total exteriority? If the inside or outside position is taken to constitute a difference, we need to determine where the defining difference lies. In other words, is the implication … of the photographer in the world he or she represents visually manifest in the pictures that are taken, and if so, how? Are the terms of reception, or for that matter, presentation, in any way determined by position – inside or out – of the photographer making the exposure? Does the personal involvement of the photographer in a milieu, a place, a culture, and a situation dislodge the subject/object distinction that is thought to foster a flaneur-like sensibility? And what exactly is meant by the notion of “inside” in relation to an activity that is by definition about capture – with greater or lesser fidelity – of a momentary appearance? (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26).

A photographer who was accused of having an inappropriate ‘outsider’ or ‘flaneur-like sensibility ‘ (above) was Sebastião Salgado (b. 1944) when photographing the poor, starving and destitute in various parts of the world. As has often been remarked (for example Strauss, 2003: 5), one of the ways in which marginalised or under-represented people or groups could be badly or unhelpfully portrayed relates to the ‘aestheticisation of the documentary image’ (see also Susan Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ (2003)). Salgado’s photographs were displayed in galleries of wealthy Western nations such that the critic Ingrid Sischy, after visiting such an exhibition ‘An Uncertain Grace’ in New York (which showed photographs taken of people in the refugee camps in famine-stricken Ethiopia, Chad and Mali) wrote:

Salgado is too busy with the compositional aspects of his pictures – and with finding the “grace” and “beauty” in the twisted forms of his anguished subjects. And this beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity towards the experience they reveal. To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action (Sischy cited in Strauss, 2003: 5).

Sischy article in the ‘New Yorker’ magazine was titled ‘Good Intensions’ (Sischy, 1991) and suggests that if the intension behind taking the photographs of desperate, starving people and children was to encourage humanitarian aid, then the result in Salgado’s case, due to the aesthetic merit of his work, was the opposite – ‘beauty is a call to admiration, not to action’ (above). In other words Sischy judged the excuse of humanitarianism for maintaining the ‘alienated and voyeuristic relationship that heightens the distance between subject and object’ (Solomon-Godeau above) in the face of desperate human suffering and death as inadequate

However, the subject of aestheticisation is complex as demonstrated by a commentary on a photograph from war in Syria (see fig. 1.), which gives a view contrary to that of Sischy (above):

The picture is scathingly beautiful. Does the light that gives these desperate faces such a ruddy glow come from a fire, or truck headlights, or was it provided by the photographer? The way the mysterious illumination picks out frightened eyes and pleading expressions from surrounding darkness is positively painterly. It is like a candlelit scene by Joseph Wright of Derby or Georges de la Tour. The way the children reach out their arms and wave their shiny pots has the dramatic gestural power of Caravaggio’s paintings. But this artfulness only adds to the picture’s stark reality. Here is a photograph whose aesthetic authority deepens its shocking news. This brutally poignant picture documents a rapidly unfolding and sinister new chapter in the war … (Jones, 2012).

If the author of the above extract was to look at Salgado’s images of famine and despair would he consider that the photographs’ ‘aesthetic authority deepens its shocking news’? Perhaps the difference is that the photograph from Syria was a news photograph while Salgado’s images were viewed in the context of a gallery space, echoing Solomon-Gadeau’s question (above): ‘Are the terms of reception, or for that matter, presentation, in any way determined by position – inside or out – of the photographer making the exposure?’ (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26).

The photography of Edward S. Curtis (b. 1868) has often been cited as an example of misrepresentation of a culture and its people (Franklin, 2016: 31; Cole, 2017). Franklin (2016: 31) gives as example the photograph ‘Tearing Lodge – Piegan’ (Curtis, 1910; see fig. 2.) describing it as ‘one of the saddest examples of ‘salvage ethnography’ – ethnographic work that seeds to salvage vestiges of vanishing cultural traditions – I have seen’ (Franklin, 2016: 31). To appreciate the poverty of Curtis’ photographs the photographer and critic Teju Cole (Cole, 2017) offers a photograph taken by Horace Poolaw in 1928 (see fig. 3.):

The woman in this photograph was named Trecil Poolaw Unap, and the photographer was her brother, Horace Poolaw. They were Kiowa, born and raised in Oklahoma. Horace Poolaw made the photograph in 1928, near the beginning of a career in which he went on to become an avid photographer of Native American life. His photographs, some of which he sold at fairs, often came with a stamp: “A Poolaw Photo, Pictures by an Indian, Horace M. Poolaw, Anadarko, Okla.” It was clear that he wanted to assert that these were pictures with a particular point of view (Cole, 2017).

Cole compares this photograph of Trecil Poolaw Unap with those made by Curtis in the same decade:

Curtis’s portraits look different because they were intended for publication in “The North American Indian,” a hugely expensive and intricate photographic undertaking that occupied him for decades. The project was championed by Theodore Roosevelt and financially supported by J.P. Morgan (Cole, 2017).

Curtis’ approach:

as laid out in his [Curtis] introduction, was precisely the opposite of Horace Poolaw’s, and it shows: When we look at Trecil Poolaw Unap with her dog [see fig. 3.], with her ironic smile, we don’t think of her as an “illustration of an Indian character,” nor do we surmise that she is caught in some “vital phase” of her existence. A certain ease and immediacy sets her apart from the beautiful but frozen characters that populate Curtis’s work (Cole, 2017).

In the example of Curtis’ photographs above it is the intension behind the work and the audience to which it is aimed that results in the poor representation. Cole explains:

The case of Edward S. Curtis is complex. He was no dilettante: He made serious ethnographic studies of indigenous communities, from the Piegan of the Great Plains to the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. And in the 1920s in New Mexico, he became involved in political initiatives that sought to defend Native Americans against government control. But the general tenor of his work idealized Native Americans in the name of preserving vanishing ways of life. He was not above removing, through later photographic manipulation, an offending clock from a carefully arranged scene. Curtis, a knowledgeable and determined man, knew exactly how he liked his Indians (Cole 2017).

Clearly Edward S. Curtis would be classed as an ‘outsider’, and was content to be such; in contrast Horace Poolaw is an ‘insider’. Thus, the photograph of Trecil Poolaw Unap (see fig. 3.), is in the first and primary instance, of a person, and photographed by someone who knew and understood her as such.  Thus this contrast between Curtis and Horace Poolaw answers in the affirmative the question put by Solomon-Godeau (above): ‘Does the personal involvement of the photographer in a milieu, a place, a culture, and a situation dislodge the subject/object distinction that is thought to foster a flaneur-like sensibility?’ (Solomon-Godeau, 2017: 10 – 26).

Teju Cole (Cole, 2016) gives another stark example of this ‘insider’/ ‘outsider’ dynamic. Commenting on the work of 20th century West African photographers working in commercial studios he makes the following comparison:

These photographs [by 20th century West African photographers] are ripostes to the anthropological images of “natives” made by Europeans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Those photographs, in which the subject had no say in how they were seen, did much to shape the Western world’s idea of Africans. Something changed when Africans began to take photographs of one another: you can see it in the way they look at the camera, in the poses, the attitude. The difference between the images taken by the colonialists or white adventurers and those made for the sitter’s personal use is especially striking in photographs of woman. In the former, women are being looked at against their will, captive to a controlling gaze. In the latter, they look at themselves as in a mirror, an activity that always involves seriousness, levity, and an element of wonder (Cole, 2016: 129).

Again, clearly the photographers who were ‘colonialists or white adventurers’ (above) are ‘outsiders’ while the African photographers are the ‘insiders’, and the differences between the two groups of photographs as described by Cole (Cole, 2016; above) demonstrate the distorting effects of ‘outsider’ photography.

How might being an insider help combat misrepresentation?

As discussed above the personal involvement of the photographer in  ‘a milieu, a place, a culture’ helps to lessen the objective sensibility that results in the framing and capturing of what is before the lens, which is often a reality which ignores a wider and deeper social or cultural context.  For example the 19th century colonialist photographers produced photographs that confirmed, maintained and built what was perceived as reality – non-European non-white people as ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’. In her essay ‘Who is Speaking Thus? Some Questions about Documentary Photography’ the critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 169 – 183) remarks that: ‘The status of photography at its birth hinged on what was thought to be its capacity for objective transcription’ (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 169 – 183), and further states:

But what, we must ask, is the real representation? And, even more important, to what uses were these representations put? Discussing the social uses of photography, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu commented: “In stamping photography with the patent of realism, society does nothing but confirm itself in the tautological certainty that an image of reality that conforms to its own representation of objectivity is truly objective.” Accordingly, photography functions to ratify and affirm the complex ideological web that at any moment in historical time is perceived as reality tout court (Solomon-Godeau, 1991: 169 – 183).

What would help combat the poor representation of people or groups is if both photographers and viewers (including allied institutions such as newspapers, galleries) were more aware of the limitations of the photographer’s lens and the distortions it can bring to the capture or rendering of ‘reality’, indeed that photography can, as well as challenging, also collude in creating and maintaining a consensual political or social reality, a reality that is usually to the detriment of marginalised people or groups.


Cole, Teju (2016) Known and Strange Things. London: Faber & Faber

Cole, Teju (2017) ‘Getting Others Right’ In: The New York Times [online] At: (Accessed on 11.09.17)

Franklin, Stuart (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon

Jones, Jonathan (2012) ‘Syria: a scathingly beautiful photograph of the edge of starvation’ In: The Guardian [online] At: (Accessed on 11.09.17)

Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Good Intensions’ In: The New Yorker, September, pp. 93 – 95

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail (2017) ‘Inside/Out’ In: Parsons (ed.) Photography after Photography: Gender, Genre, History. London: Duke University Press. pp. 10 – 26

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail (1991) ‘Who is Speaking Thus? Some Questions about Documentary Photography’. In: Photography at the Dock. Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 169 – 183

Sontag, Susan 92003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin Books

Strauss, David Levi (2003) Between the Eyes. Essays on Photography and Politics. New York: Aperture


Figure 1. Maysun/EPA (2012) Displaced Syrians wait for the daily distribution of food outside the northern city of Azaz, on the border between Syria and Turkey. At: (Accessed on 11.09.17)

Figure 2. Curtis, Edward S. (1910) Tearing Lodge – Piegan. At: (Accessed on 11.09.17)

Figure 3. Poolaw, Horace (1928) Trecil Poolaw Unap. At: (Accessed on 11.09.17)